29. Michael Jackson - Wanna Be Startin' Somethin'

"Wanna Be Startin' Somethin'?"  Are you kidding me?  You're going to pick one Michael Jackson song and it's that?  At most, it's the third best song on Thriller, much less the rest of Jackson's career.  Sure, it's probably in the Top 10 of Jackson's career, but it doesn't even crack his Top 5.  And you're going to put it as the 29th best song of your lifetime?  You have gone over the deep end, my friend.  You made pretty good cases for songs that I thought were pretty good, but how can you make a case for putting "Wanna Be Startin' Somethin'" this high on your list?  You've finally lost me, pal.

The above paragraph is the thought process that my brain went through when I was trying to figure out what Michael Jackson song should make my list and where I should put it on my list.  And I'm sure it's similar to what went on in your mind when you saw the header for this entry.  To be honest, I understand that "Billie Jean" and "Beat It" are the two huge standouts from the Thriller album.  You might even put the title track up there, especially with its groundbreaking (and awesome!) video.  But the plain fact is that "Wanna Be Startin' Somethin'" is perhaps the greatest dance song ever written.  And just like comedies never get their due in serious film criticism, dance songs don't get theirs from music critics. 

It starts at a frantic pace and never slows down for a second.  It's relentless in its intention to get you off your lazy ass and start dancing.  The intricate drum machine patterns (that Jackson himself arranged) matched with the hyperactive bass line establish a pulsating rhythm that immediately draws you in, and just like the mafia, once you're in, you're in.  At the very least, you're bobbing your head now, and if you're me or Ellen Degeneres, you're in full dork-dance mode, shimmying your shoulders and doing some idiotic variation of "raise the roof" with your hands.  And before long, you're up and your legs join the party.

The guitar is actually a rhythm instrument in this song, playing that staccato plucking beat like dance morse code, which Jackson then mimics with his own voice.  The guitar finally gets to cut loose with that great solo near the end of the song.  The horn arrangement is vibrant and bright, hitting those treble highs with piercing intensity, while the backing vocals add to the dance hall vibe.  Most dance songs nowadays are so heavy on the bass, they give you a headache in twenty seconds if you have them turned up too much.  This song, though, is heavy at the top end of the sonic spectrum.  I tend to like my music with an active high end, so maybe that's why I love this song so much.

The frenetic pace of the song makes it sound as if it's almost careening out of control, and that pace matches the emotional intensity of the lyrics.  Even though the lyrics in a dance song normally don't mean much, in this song, there's much more depth to them.  "Wanna Be Startin' Somethin'" was written in response to the crushing media attention that can destroy relationships and ruin a life.  And he wasn't even talking about himself.  "Wanna Be Startin' Somethin'" is actually about the negative attention his sister, La Toya, was receiving from the tabloid media about her troubled marriage at the time.  When he talks about "someone's always tryin' to start my baby cryin," he's referring to the impact their vicious attacks can have.  So he calls them to task:

You love to pretend that you're good
When you're always up to no good
You really can't make him hate her
So your tongue becomes a razor

It's an honorable defense of his sister, but until I did the research for this song, I had absolutely no idea what the song was about.  That's another thing that dance songs have going against them - people assume that the lyrics are just filler.  In this case, though, there's some insightful meaning behind that hypnotic dance beat.  But then he takes this bizarre lyrical turn and breaks out the following:

You're a vegetable, you're a vegetableStill they hate you, you're a vegetable
You're just a buffet, you're a vegetable
They eat off of you, you're a vegetable

Huh?  I'm a vegetable?  What the hell does that mean?  After doing some research, it turns out that it's a reference to the piranha-like nature of the paparazzi and the tabloid press.  The way that everything that you do as a celebrity target of the paparazzi comes under intense scrutiny, and the more you try to fend them off, the more they feed on the frenzy.  You're nothing more than fodder to them.  You're not a person - you're just a vegetable.  The irony becomes palpable when it turns out that a song he writes about his sister and her tabloid problems end up foreshadowing his own problems with the tabloids and paparazzi later in his own life.

Throughout all the accusatory lyrics, though, the strong dance beat keeps you tapping your toe and wishing you could dance better.  The "Ma ma se, ma ma sa, ma ma coo sas" vocals with the hand claps and the horn punctuations at the end of the song are the final straw.  If you're not dancing by now, there's no hope for you.  The energy is so contagious that if you're at all inclined, you're singing along with the African style lyrics that you don't understand.  You could be singing "I am the worst dancer ever" and not even know it.  (In reality, though, the words don't mean anything, they're just gibberish sung in an African rhythm).

"Wanna Be Startin' Somethin'" finally fades into silence after six minutes of non-stop action.  And for a pop song, six minutes is a long time.  But it doesn't seem like it's that long.  You never find yourself thinking, "When will this song end, for chrissakes?"  You're captivated from the moment it starts until the moment it fades away.  For some of you, though, dance music just isn't your thing and you think this song is pretty lame.  If that's the case, then I feel sorry for you.  You're depriving yourself of six minutes of unadulterated fun every time you listen to it.  And don't we all need as much fun as we can get? 

Okay, now that I'm done with my post, I feel the need to address Michael Jackson, the person.  I didn't feel that it pertained to whether or not "Wanna Be Startin' Somethin'" was a good song or not.  Since Michael Jackson never really had a chance to live his own childhood the way he wanted, he felt the need to compensate (or overcompensate) for that as an adult.  Whether or not that turned out escalating into child molestation is something that only a few people know for sure.  The evidence seems pretty overwhelming that at best, Jackson was guilty of staggeringly inappropriate behavior with children and at worst the unforgivable act of abusing those children.  If it's the latter, he deserves all of the punishment that hell (if it exists) has to offer and I'm not sorry in the least that he died at a relatively young age so he couldn't do any more damage to a child.  If it's the former, then I feel a touch of sadness at his lost childhood but still think he was a grown man and should've known better.  Either way, it's a tragic story that could've had so much more fulfilled hope in it.
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